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Discussing the ASTD Handbook with Elaine Biech

When my copy of the second edition ASTD Handbook arrived at the office this summer, I immediately felt the urge to explore my new resource and see what content made the final cut for an important industry asset. Call me old fashioned, but I do still see the value in a thoughtfully constructed book curated by a trusted source and filled with vetted content from a wide variety of industry experts. I’m happy to say that the ASTD Handbook meets my demands in every regard, and although I haven’t read through all 980 pages of this massive reference guide, I’ve searched the handbook multiple times and always come away with excellent analysis and hints on what to explore next.

Some of you may wonder how a printed handbook could possibly compete with the networked knowledge and agile, on-demand content production of the digital world, but in this case I don’t think it’s proper to set it up as a zero-sum competition. In many ways, this handbook successfully bridges the gap between the print and digital world. A group of 96 industry experts has been asked to condense traditional long-form arguments (the “one expert with a megaphone” approach of a printed book)  into more elemental offerings that touch on many different topics and naturally direct readers to continue their exploration either online or at the bookstore.

In this case, industry knowledge is networked in print form as a snapshot of best practices and forward-thinking analysis, and the handbook becomes a tool to enhance and refine deeper research efforts. Reading up on a topic in a handbook article written by an expert can only better prepare you to hunt down (and properly digest) whatever granular information you ultimately need to find. In other words, the ASTD Handbook is well designed as the starting point for your next self-led professional development journey. It’s a compass to guide you in the right direction so you don’t get lost in the labyrinth of the print (or the digital) world.

Or at least that’s how I see it. To get the perspective of the architect of the project, I recently interviewed Elaine Biech, editor of the second edition ASTD Handbook. The interview touched on a wide range of topics, and the transcript of our exchange is included below. Enjoy.

Jon Aleckson (JA): The ASTD Handbook is quite the reference book for the training and development industry.  How did the idea for such a publishing effort emerge?

Elaine Biech (EB): Every profession should have a body of knowledge—some go-to reference that its members can use as a starting point for tapping into content and information. The ASTD Handbook does just that. The first edition is 5 years old and much has happened in those 5 years. To be useful to the profession, the final product needed to be current, grounded in theory, and practical.

The content between the two covers, in 55 insightful chapters and 9 luminary perspectives, written by 96 expert authors provides an update, but more importantly, takes a deeper dive into each subject area than the first edition. Even though the content is hot off the research presses, we also asked authors to reference the giants whose research shaped our profession. It is critical that we remember the foundation on which we base our assumptions in learning and development. So, even if you are involved in mLearning, you will be more successful if you understand the concepts from pioneers such as Benjamin Bloom, Robert Gagne, and Malcolm Knowles.

In addition, we know that the profession requires all of us to have practical solutions for our organizations—not just theory. The accompanying website contains more than 70 tools to enable practitioners to put the knowledge to use with worksheets, checklists, job aids, and other resources.

 

JA: Can you reveal how well the first edition sold?

EB: I can’t count that high … however, I am told that the Chinese translation alone sold a couple hundred thousand [copies] in just the last two years.

 

JA: Our Blog www.managingelearning.com is focused on information for the eLearning manager.  What would you say are the most relevant chapters for this audience?

EB: We made a conscious decision in this Handbook to weave eLearning into the content. It has become a part of what we do—not something unique and special. I think many of us in the profession today see it as a part of the process—not another “option” to consider “also.” Therefore you will find eLearning content in many chapters.

Several relevant chapters for your particular audience based on topic alone would include “The Persistent Classroom” by David Powell of CCL; “Learning Challenges of the Future” by luminary, Elliott Masie; “Effective Social Media for Learning” by Jane Bozarth; “M-Thinking: There’s an App for That” by Clark Quinn; and “A Serious E-Learning Manifesto” by Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, Clark Quinn, and Will Thalheimer. However, even more important, if your audience is in the T&D arena I hope they would also be interested in topics such as “The Value of Experiential Learning” by Bob Lucas and Kris Zilliox or “The Importance of Measuring Results and Impact” by Rob Brinkerhoff.

 

JA: What is your methodology for choosing topics and authors?

EB: This is a great question. I really like my process and am happy to share it with others. How do you start a project of this magnitude? Do you select the authors first? Or the topics first? This is one of those chicken or the egg questions. My process is not an “or” but an “and.” That is, I implement an entangled process that considers both “who” and “what” at the same time and weaves back and forth, while constantly remaining open to other forces.

For example when contemplating the topic of evaluation several influential and respected names immediately come to mind: Kirkpatrick, Phillips, Brinkerhoff, and others. In addition, several topics immediately come to mind: learning analytics, performance, transfer of learning, the four levels, ROI, and others.

When comparing the two lists, you can see there are some immediate matches: ROI and Phillips; the Four Levels and Kirkpatrick. Now we still have other leadership experts without a topic. Why not ask Brinkerhoff to write about what he knows best: the importance of measurement. We have topics without authors so requesting Cal Wick to write about transfer of learning makes sense. And a recent topic for the profession is learning analytics. Who can tackle that important topic?

We also wanted to introduce new talent, new thinking, new authors. If you scan the Table of Contents you may say, “I never heard of her or him.” Good. We fulfilled our objective. Take a look at these on-the-horizon future thinkers; we think you may see some of them as the thought leaders of the field in the near future.

To say that this process is exhilarating is an understatement!

 

JA: What I appreciate is the ability to scan the table of contents, read a chapter, and then order the authors book for more in-depth information.  How do other people approach the book?  Have you met anyone who claims to have read all 1000 pages?

EB: Your approach is admirable. The Table of Contents reads like a who’s who in the training and development industry. I imagine that some people do follow your model: read a chapter and purchase an entire book written by the same author. However, we tried to ensure that each chapter was a stand-alone piece. That is, it provided enough information to be useful to either solve a problem or be referenced in another work.

Some of the readers who were excited to purchase the new edition told me that they feel confident that it is on their bookshelf and ready use at a moment’s notice, knowing that key topics are included and that they can trust the content because it is written by competent, respected authors. They use it like an esteemed encyclopedia.

We all know that executives are very busy people. Some Handbook readers share chapters with their leaders to help them understand a specific content area so that they have enough knowledge to make wises decisions about developing their employees.

Who has read all 1000 pages? At least two people in the world that I know: Ashley McDonald, my ASTD publishing partner, and me. I will gladly provide a prize to anyone of your readers who has also read the entire book!

 

JA: How was it working with such sought after authors?  Do you have a favorite?

EB: Every author in the Handbook was remarkable. Their extraordinary depth of knowledge is impressive. We have quite an impressive number of really smart people in the field who love what they do and it shows in their work. We can be thankful for them so that we are produce quality for our organizations. I found each author inspiring in his or her own way.

Finally they are some of the most gracious people in the world. At the same time that I am trying to thank them for supporting the project and contributing to the profession, they are thanking me for the opportunity to make a difference and share what they know.

 

JA: A lot of the information found in the Handbook could be found on the web.  Did ASTD consider not publishing a second edition?

An infographic for the second edition ASTD Handbook.

An infographic for the second edition ASTD Handbook.

EB:Yep, you are right. Much of the information can be found on the web, but ASTD never considered not publishing a second edition. When the time was right ASTD made the move. Grabbing information off the web does pose an issue for all of us of whether the content is authoritative and accurate. A handbook is a special book. Its name alone implies that it will be written by respected authorities of the topics.

Readers believe that they will be able to turn to the handbook to find the most accurate as well as useful answers to a variety of questions about the handbook’s topic. A reader who decides to invest in a “handbook” has high expectations. The editor must interpret and deliver on these expectations to make it worthwhile. A handbook must be authoritative, complete, and useful. ASTD recognized this when they decided to publish a second edition.

  • Authoritative. A handbook must be written by authors whose work you respect and trust. When you pick up The ASTD Handbook, you hold over 2000 years of experience within your hands. You know the authors. You’ve read their work and have depended on their theories and concepts for years.
  • Complete. A handbook must be fundamental to the subject. Readers have an expectation of key topics that should be covered about the handbook’s theme. The ASTD Handbook,for example,covers essentially everything you might name in the field.
  • Useful. A handbook by its very nature is written by gurus who have conducted research, identified theories, and produced volumes of knowledge on a narrow subtopic. Most of us, however, are too busy to unravel the entire string of research content. We want the nuggets of information, the how-to, and the go-do advice. We want answers to question and implementable ideas. The ASTD Handbook does this.

 

JA: Why do you think books remain popular?

EB: This is a great question, but one that could take up more than another Blog. In fact, it could be another whole book!

 

JA: If there was only one chapter you could recommend which one would it be?

EB: That’s like asking a mother who her favorite child is! Unfair! I will admit that a couple of chapters took my breath away because they were beyond the cutting edge and one brought chills because the future of our profession is so exciting. But why spoil the fun; you’ll need to read them for yourself to discover the excitement.

More than a specific chapter, I like the fact that the authors challenge our thinking. Does the 70-20-10 learning principle really exist? Is SAM really better than ADDIE? Should you begin evaluation with Level 4 first?

I also like the collaborative chapters. These were chapters where we asked people who did not know each other and who came at a topic from different perspectives to work together. Difficult to do, but excellent results. “The Importance of Certification,” for example is written from the organization’s perspective and the employee’s perspective.

 

JA: Now that ASTD has changed their name to ATD do you think you will be getting a new cover?

EB: No. There will be no new cover for two reasons. First, the new name provides an excuse to publish another Handbook under the guise of a “new” edition with a new name. Second, the cost would require a dues increase!

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